Cliftonville on brink of title after win over Crusaders
Cliftonville 3 Crusaders 1
It was the day Cliftonville fans finally dared to say it.
Some had attempted to utter the word in sporadic bursts throughout the season, only to be silenced by colleagues who, paralysed by a fear of tempting fate, simply didn't want to count any chickens.
However, on Tuesday the north-Belfast air echoed to a chorus of "Championies, championies" as the final blast of referee Raymond Hetherington's whistle heralded celebrations from supporters who knew that, though still not mathematically secured, the Gibson Cup is on its way to the Solitude trophy cabinet.
Fourteen points clear with just five games to play, the Reds' superior goal difference means that just one more point will clinch the title.
The visitors' hopes of snatching the trophy from beneath their rivals' noses got off to a great start when Timmy Adamson capitalised on defensive hesitancy to scramble the Crues ahead on 15 minutes, but Cliftonville hit back in a thrilling second-half, with a fizzing Liam Boyce free-kick before Barry Johnston and Boyce again found the net to give Tommy Breslin's side a 3-1 win and put them on the brink of the title.
"We're so close we can almost touch it, but we just want to get over the line now," said Breslin.
"This was a big win on a big day and we've played ourselves into a position where we're virtually uncatchable.
"We still have to finish the job and we'll have the chance to do that when Linfield come to Solitude on Saturday-week – and to clinch it in front of our own fans would be fantastic.
"In the last few years, we've had Glentoran win the league against us, Linfield win the league against us and we've stood back, clapped them off the pitch and watched them enjoy it, so it will make a nice change for us to be the ones celebrating."
The deadlock was broken on the quarter-hour when a diagonal delivery into the middle caught the home defence in two minds and as Devlin emerged from his line in an attempt to claim the ball, Adamson nipped in to bundle it over the line.
Breslin made attempts to rectify the situation with some well-chosen words of wisdom at the break and the Reds levelled just before the hour when Boyce smashed a free-kick straight down Lacroix's throat; the Frenchman unable to react in time to keep the ball out.
Six minutes later and Lacroix looked uncertain once again as neither he nor Josh Robinson dealt with a cross into the box and Johnston was on hand to poke the ball into the net.
Lacroix saved from Diarmuid O'Carroll just as the clock ticked into injury-time, but the victory was complete with virtually the contest's final kick when Boyce sprung a lackadaisical offside trap to race clear, slot home and finally spark those chants of celebration from the home faithful.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter was gracious in defeat, saying: "We have just witnessed a passing display of some quality.
"Cliftonville have been the best team in the league all season long and you have to recognise their achievement and congratulate them on it.
"We have done well ourselves and have challenged them better than anyone else, but second place is nothing and first place is everything – and Cliftonville deserve to be where they are."
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, R Scannell, Johnston, Caldwell, McMullan, Garrett, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Boyce. Subs: Donnelly (for Caldwell, 76 mins), O'Carroll (for Gormley, 68 mins), Seydak (for Scannell, 63 mins), Cosgrove, Knowles.
CRUSADERS: Lacroix, Leeman, Magowan, Coates, McClean, Robinson, Snoddy, Heatley, Owens, Adamson, McCutcheon. Subs: McAllister, Caddell, McMaster (for Heatley, 61 mins), Morrow (for Snoddy, 46 mins), Rainey (for McCutcheon, 67 mins).
Referee: Raymond Hetherington (Dungannon).